The Athens NEWS and The Post have endorsed Republican Randy Morris for Athens City Council’s Fourth Ward seat, and so have I. We’ve all made some compelling arguments for why Morris is the best candidate. Yet no one could make a more compelling argument for Morris than the Athens County Democratic Party and its disdain for transparency and accountability — in fact, its disdain for voters. While Athens Dems have provided voters with a litany of reasons to seek change on city council, Third Ward Councilwoman Nancy Bain has added some rich icing to the layer cake.
On August 17, an e-mail exchange — obtained through a public records request — took place between Mr. Morris and Athens City Auditor Kathy Hecht. Morris was wondering how council plans to pay for the $1.75 million it’s planning to borrow for its proposed purchase of 600 acres from the University Estates (UE) development project. (For background on the controversial UE purchase, see this article from the Athens NEWS as well as Randy Morris’ August 27 letter to the editor). Hecht’s response confirms Morris’ conclusion, that council does not yet know — or at least isn’t telling us — how it’s going to pay for the land grab.
But this exchange gets even more interesting when Dr. Bain steps into the fray. Hecht forwarded Morris’ e-mail to Bain and inquired as to where he came up with the $1.75 million figure. Bain, clearly ignorant that the figure had been published in the Athens Messenger earlier that day, sent Hecht this colorful response:
Hi, The anount (sic) was discussed in executive session and should not be released. Tell him to go to and stay put!
Emphasis is my own, and much more — including additional comment from Dr. Bain and Mr. Morris — beneath the fold…
Let’s leave aside questions about where exactly Bain thought Morris should “go to” and “stay put,” as well as questions about whether this public record was edited before being turned over. Those questions are actually tangential.
The real question for Bain and Athens County Democrats, including Christine Fahl, is this: Was this response appropriate? Sure, maybe if Randy Morris was only a political opponent from a different party this would have been the response he deserved. But let’s not forget, Randy Morris isn’t just a Republican running for council. He’s also a citizen, taxpayer, and voter in Athens. Doesn’t he have a right to a real answer, rather than sniping behind his back? Don’t we all have a right to a real answer?
Nancy Bain doesn’t think so. According to an e-mail I received from Dr. Bain yesterday, “such information is generally considered privileged under the Sunshine Law.” When asked directly if she believed in hindsight that her response was appropriate, she gave me an unequivocal “yes,” adding: “I never was asked, nor did I respond the (sic) Candidate/Citizen Morris.” Ah, that’s true! She didn’t respond to “Candidate/Citizen Morris.” Instead she dismissed him altogether and made a derogatory statement about him to her Democratic colleague, the city auditor.
Believe it or not, though, Bain decided to dig an even deeper hole for herself, her party, and her Fourth Ward colleague Christine Fahl. When I pointed out to Bain that the $1.75 million figure is now widely known to the public and asked if she could now answer Morris’ original question — that is, how council intends to pay for the purchase — this was her response:
That is, of course, privileged information under the Sunshine rules. But if you review the the (sic) tapes of the meeting you will find your answer.
In case you’re missing the audacity, let me point it out to you. Bain is using a law that exists to ensure transparency in order to evade it. And she’s not even doing that well! She insists that she cannot tell me how council will pay for a $1.75 million purchase because it’s “privileged information,” then turns around and says that this “privileged information” is actually open to the public in recordings of council meetings. If that’s the case, Dr. Bain, why don’t you just answer the question? And maybe you better get Kathy Hecht to sit down and take a listen to those tapes, since she was as clueless as the rest of us on August 17.
Are you seeing a pattern here? The Athens County Democratic Party thinks it is politically untouchable, and therefore politically unaccountable to Athens voters and taxpayers. Their party chair is under indictment and not one of them — not Nancy Bain, not Christine Fahl — has asked her to at least temporarily step aside. They can do that, because they’re untouchable and unaccountable. Their councilwoman insists that Athens voters and taxpayers have no right to know how their city council plans to pay for a planned $1.75 million purchase that was authorized with no public input. She can do that, because she’s untouchable and unaccountable.
Randy Morris responded to my request for comment, specifically addressing whether or not Bain’s response was appropriate. In his response he demonstrates that he sees what the rest of us should see, “a lack of regard . . . for the public’s right to know what the council is up to.” Here, in part, is what he had to say:
As to your question, since the e-mail was not sent to me directly I suppose it was not “improper,” but it does seem to show a lack of regard by Nancy Bain for the public’s right to know what the city council is up to. It doesn’t appear she likes to have her decisions questioned.
As of this writing, Christine Fahl has not yet responded to my request for comment. Yet she has a responsibility to Athens voters to first tell us where she stands on Bain’s flippant dismissal of voter concerns, and second to explain to us how council plans to pay for the UE purchase. Bain made this bed, but Fahl is the one who is going to have to lie in it as the only council member in a contested election this November. We’re waiting, Mrs. Fahl.
While we wait — and I would advise you not to hold your breath — it’s time for Athens voters to tell Nancy Bain, Susan Gwinn, Christine Fahl, and the entire Athens County Democratic Party that they are not untouchable and that they will be held accountable. The best way to do that, to borrow Dr. Bain’s language, is for voters to head to their voting precincts this November and tell Randy Morris to go to city council and stay put!